Robert Aickman is a British ghost story writer whose stories have had a recent uptick in popularity, though he remained obscure for decades. The Guardian describes his work as focusing on “characters straying into, or being unwitting drawn towards, mysterious spaces beyond everyday reality.” Aickman’s work is itself one of these unusual spaces itself, located outside firm genre boundaries.
His ghost stories are unconventional. In “The Hospice,” there is no revelation of the supernatural at all, though that isn’t to say there is no ghost. It consists of a man, Maybury, who abandons the standard English roads to find himself lost and low on petrol in an out-of-the-way, old fashioned neighbourhood. He stays for the night in a hospice without a telephone line. It has a full staff and a number of middle-aged and elderly residents. However, there is a constant, low-humming anxiety as he attempts to leave, while constantly being thwarted by his polite, apologetic host.
From what the staff and residents tell him, he surmises that they live in the hospice together, while rarely encountering outside company (despite the fact they live in a hospice). They shelter there to avoid the modern world and its fears and anxieties. Yet, a number of off-putting encounters suggest that something else, vaguely sinister, is happening.
For example, the woman who serves him insists that he should eat more and is so offended when he refuses to take more food that she dashes the plate on the floor. Falkner, the maitre d’hôtel, apologizes profusely, but he also knows Maybury’s name, even though he never volunteered it. Maybury does realize he left his car rental papers, with his name on it, on the hood of his car, but he finds it unsettling Falkner would have gone outside into the night to check it.
Falkner might also be untrustworthy. He seems to be conspiring to keep Maybury at the hospice. For instance, he provides his own vehicle for Maybury to siphon more petrol, but later apologizes, saying he forgot that his vehicle runs on diesel instead. Though this could be an honest mistake, Maybury wonders if it might have been an intentional lie to keep him trapped at the hospice overnight.
The hospice has no single rooms, meaning Maybury has to share a room with a red-haired man named Bannard. Like the other residents, Bannard requires absolute silence in the hallways and rooms after dark. Maybury has difficulty sleeping that night, especially since after he hears a blood-curdling scream while Bannard happens to be gone from the room. Maybury wakes up, finding himself trapped in the room, which is locked from the outside. Even the heavily curtained windows are fake—he finds himself encased between four walls.
Maybury returns to bed. Bannard returns later, smelling of women’s perfume. He apologizes about locking the door, saying, “We’re not really locked in, you know.” Though this strongly suggests he could be a ghost, the statement slips by, unremarked. Maybury also has difficulty recognizing Bannard, since he has greyer hair, his facial expression almost imperceptibly changed. Later the next day, after a proper rest, Bannard returns to his usual, red-headed self. Was the change all in Maubury’s imagination?
In the end, Falkner tells Maybury that there was a death at the hospice the previous night, which was the cause of the screaming, and though he does not say who died, Falkner arranges for Maybury to hitch a ride on the hearse which has come to pick up the corpse. He rides it, sitting alongside the casket, until the hearse drops him off at the nearest bus stop.
The story ends there. None of the strange details are given a final explanation. They simply happen. Maybury does not do any detective work. However, because this is an Aickman story, and because the reader is presumably already familiar with the tropes of the ghost story, the reader reach their own conclusion about whether the hospice is haunted.
This story prompted me to reflect on why so many of these weird fiction stories revolve around hospitality. It made me think of how the otherness of Polyphemus, the Cyclops in Greek mythology, is partly expressed by his “barbaric” refusal to be a proper host and provide Odysseus and his men with food. The ancient Greeks had a concept of ritualized hospitality known as xenia. Those who broke this rule were often monsters, like Polyphemus or Lykaeon, the man who fed human meet to the gods and was turned into a wolf.
Being a good host shows that you are a human being and worthy of being treated with respect, even if you are enemies with the guest. It creates a sense of normalcy and civility that a guest can expect food to be brought to them if they are in need, even if it is from a foe. However, when these customs are violated, or even practiced differently, it can be a stronger marker of strangeness. It upends expectations.
Though Falkner appears to embody the very image of British hospitality in “The Hospice,” this is just a normalizing facade. The little breeches of protocol—the spilled food, the spying on the guest’s rental papers, the lack of a phone line to the outside world, the locking of the hotel room door, the “mistake” about the diesel fuel—are indicators of hospitality breeches that ever so subtly suggest monstrosity. These clues hint that not only the rules of good hospitality but normality itself is being violated.
One reading is that Bannard and the other residents are, indeed, ghosts. For instance, it is suggested Bannard can walk through walls when the claims he isn’t really “locked in.” But, if this is true, how can one of the residents die? Ghosts cannot die; they’re already dead.
One explanation is that the hospice consists of living people who voluntarily extricated themselves from society. They might be very old holdouts from Victorian times, their lives sustained artificially through the enchantment of the hotel and its food. This could explain why Bannard’s youth is apparently restored each morning. To use Bakhtin’s term, the hospice is a distinct chronotope, a special time-place where time passes differently from how it does normally. For as long as they’re in the hospice, the residents have unnatural longevity though not immortality.
However, there is also a stranger reading that is arguably suggested by the text and, at the same time, disprovable. Before arriving at the hospice, Maybury is mauled or perhaps bitten by a cat that attacks him out of nowhere and escapes unseen. The injury, which is severe, might be septic. He could lose a limb from it, if he doesn’t find an antiseptic. However, faced with his strange situation, he never bothers asking the Falkner for help.
Given this foreshadowing, which never explicitly pays out to show him fixing the wound or succumbing to it, it could be that Maybury himself is the one who died. After all, Falkner never says who died, only that someone did. It could be a Sixth Sense kind of deal.
However, this reading, on close inspection, doesn’t seem to fit. It’s not literally true, anyway. Maybury leaves the hospice in back of a hearse, true enough. And it is true he never opens the coffin to see if it’s his body inside of it. However, why did he not notice his own body lying in his bed when he died? Also, wouldn’t the screams come from somewhere closer in the house?
Faced with this concrete evidence, it must be concluded that Maybury does not die, at least not literally. However, he still leaves the hospice in back of a hearse, which is symbolic of the fact that he does encounter death, in a way. According to dream logic, he does die, even if this conclusion does not hold up intellectual scrutiny. Aickman plays the reader’s conscious and unconscious mind off each other, providing no straightforward resolution between the two.
In keeping with Todorov’s notion of the “fantastic,” the reader moves back and forth between a supernatural and a naturalistic explanation for events. Does the story resolve firmly one way or another? Evidently, the answer is no. The hospice could be a natural, if slightly strange, building, a bit like an insular senior’s home, with its own subculture. However, I’m not sure that this is satisfying explanation: there is definitely something supernatural about it, as hard to pin down as it might be.
Next week I will be discussing “It Only Comes Out At Night” by Dennis Etchison (1976).